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Years ago, I came up with a concept I called The Uncertainty Certainty. Uncertainty gives people pause, and the resolution of the uncertainty empowers them to make precisely the wrong decision, time after time. It's uncanny. Kidding Ourselves is a compendium of similar human folly. In order to maintain some sort of control, some sort of dignity, some sort of pride, we constantly hold positions in clear contradiction to reality. Even when we read the studies or the stories, when we know the stats and the odds, we continue to hold opinions that are just plain wrong, and mostly about ourselves. Hallinan calls it a built-in placebo effect.

The book is a collection of stories and studies. We have examined the phenomenon up and down, forwards and backwards, in seemingly hundreds of ways. Incredible amounts of money have been expended to tell us this: we deceive ourselves constantly. It's innate and unstoppable. Rats and dogs show the same tendencies. Have a nice day fooling yourself.

We spend billions every year on vitamins and supplements, despite the almost weekly reporting of studies that show some vitamin totally failed to have any effect whatsoever in a two year study of 5000 people. Or that there has never been a study that showed any vitamin supplement actually achieved preventing colds or cancer, extending lives, improving memory or easing joint movement.

It's even worse in politics. In Ohio before the last election, 15% of Republicans claimed to believe Mitt Romney had Osama Bin Laden killed. Nationwide, over half of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. Hallinan says in politics, the most informed are the most biased, spouting wrong statistics and incorrect facts that favor their own stance. So while you might think they lie like rugs, the Michele Bachmanns of the world actually believe what they say. Facts be damned.

Whole towns have been laid low by non existent diseases. Eastern Ukraine believes the country's upheaval is solely a fabrication of western journalists. Mesmer changed thousands of lives with magnets (until Benjamin Franklin proved him silly). It is endless.

Fortunately, the book is not. At only 155 pages of content, it's a compact, entertaining and enlightening sampling of the disaster. Or maybe it's not a disaster. Maybe self deception is what keeps the wheels turning. One question it does not deal with: is knowing empowering? That will have to be another book.

David Wineberg
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